In mid-November the Teaching and Learning Collaborative hosted a brown bag session for faculty and academic staff to discuss student mental health. It was clear by the turnout of over 20 faculty and staff during a busy time of the semester that this is a topic people care about, and we were lucky to be joined for our discussion by Eliot Altschul – the new assistant director for counseling and training at the Health and Counseling Center. So what did we learn?
For one, Eliot offered some practical updates about counseling services provided by UP. Did you know, for example, that the Health and Counseling Center reserves two appointment slots every work day for emergency needs – ensuring that students experiencing acute mental health concerns can get same day help. They also have nine daily appointments for 20 minute initial consultations with one of the counseling staff, ensuring that most any student with non-emergency concerns can talk to a professional within a few days. Eliot also reported on the Protocol after-hours phone service for students with mental health needs outside regular hours as we approach the end of its first semester of full implementation. In general, it has gone well—the usage rates have not been overwhelming (hopefully a good sign that student needs are being met in person), but the availability has been an important service for many students.
We also had relatively open-ended discussions about two hypothetical mental health scenarios designed to be relevant to faculty and academic staff. The first:
“A student who has been performing poorly in your class, and who has been attending only sporadically, comes to office hours to talk about how to improve his grade. Though you don’t know the student well, the discussion seems to focus more on his general lack of well-being rather than his academic work. Based on several hints in the discussion, you suspect the student may be feeling suicidal – but you are not sure. What might you do?”
Though these types of situations do not have one right answer, one important point in our discussion was that if we are concerned a student may be suicidal then the best practice is to ask directly: are you thinking about suicide. This is, in fact, part of several national programs designed to help people approach mental health crisis – including the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) program which has offered several trainings at UP in recent years. Sometimes people worry that directly asking about suicidal thoughts could prompt such thoughts, but the evidence generally suggests that it is more helpful to ask directly than to dodge the issue. If the answer is yes, then our job is to make sure they get immediate help — calling the Health and Counseling Center directly, working with Early Alert, and/or working with Public Safety.
Another point of discussion with this scenario was the recommendation that the main job of faculty and academic staff in these types of situations is to help students get professional help through referral and encouragement – not to try to provide counseling themselves. This point was also brought out through the second hypothetical scenario up for discussion:
“You have developed a good relationship with a student, who has then disclosed that she is having personal difficulties. She schedules time to talk with you frequently during office hours. You are glad to listen and have suggested counseling to her to deal with the matters on her mind. She continues to request to see you often and/or stop you after class. You begin to feel burdened.”
Discussion here again centered around the idea of referral and helping students build other systems of support – encouraging them to use the many services on campus beyond office hours designed for different student needs (including the Shepard Academic Resource Center, campus ministry and pastoral residents, professional counselors, etc.). We also discussed recommendations from prior professional counselors at UP to remember that sometimes what students most need from faculty and academic staff is good boundaries and clear expectations – in some cases when students are struggling with mental health concerns, learning to work within a set of clear and reasonable expectations that feel realistic and supported can be a way of feeling on track.
Finally, Eliot also offered some basic tips and reminders about stress management and self-care that might be useful for faculty, staff, and students alike as we approach the end of another busy semester. Starting with a quote from Audre Lorde (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation…”), he passed out a sheet reminding us to ask ourselves and our students such simple but important questions as: Did you eat today? Are you hydrated? Are you rested? Are you breathing [taking time to slow down]? And, last but not least: Have you had some fun?